Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Dead As A Doornail

Posted by Elyse Bruce on May 26, 2010

The phrase “dead as a doornail” is an odd sort of phrase.  After all, one would scarcely think of a doornail as being alive so referring to it as being dead is equally amusing.  However, the term has nothing to do with whether a nail is a living, breathing entity.  When a nail is hammered into a piece of wood and the end is flattened so the nail cannot be removed, the nail is said to be dead since it can’t be removed and reused.

The earliest known version of this phrase is found in the English poem “William of Palerne” written by William Langland some time between 1335 and 1361, as commissioned by Humphrey de Bohun, 6th Earl of Hereford. The poem was a translation of the poem “Guillaume de Palerne” written in 1200, by William of Palerne as commissioned by Countess Yolande, daughter of Baldwin IV, Count of Flanders by William of Palerne.  In the English version, the following line is found:

“For but ich haue bote of mi bale I am ded as dorenail.”

Of course, William Shakespeare being the prolific writer he was found a place for the phrase in his play of 1592, “Henry VI” in Part II, Act IV, Scene 10 where Jack Cade says to Alexander Iden, a poor esquire of Kent:

JACK CADE:
Brave thee! ay, by the best blood that ever was
broached, and beard thee too. Look on me well: I
have eat no meat these five days; yet, come thou and
thy five men, and if I do not leave you all as
dead
as a doornail
, I pray God I may never eat grass more.

In 1843, Charles Dickens use the phrase with great effect in his work  “A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas” where he wrote:

“Old Marley was as dead as a door–nail. Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door–nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin–nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door–nail.”

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